Date of Neandertal Demise Debated: Improved Radiocarbon Method Suggests Older Age for Fossils

By Wayman, Erin | Science News, March 23, 2013 | Go to article overview
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Date of Neandertal Demise Debated: Improved Radiocarbon Method Suggests Older Age for Fossils


Wayman, Erin, Science News


The story of the Neandertals may need a new ending, a controversial study suggests. Using improved radiocarbon methods, scientists redated two of the youngest known Neandertal cave sites and concluded that they are at least 10,000 years older than previous studies have found.

The findings cast doubt on the reliability of radiocarbon dates from other recent Neandertal sites, the researchers suggest in the Feb. 19 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

This means the last Neandertals might have died out much earlier than previously thought, which could cause anthropologists to rethink how and why these hominids vanished. Researchers have long debated whether the harsh Ice Age climate, the appearance of modern humans migrating out of Africa or some other factor drove Neandertals to extinction.

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"The paper is simply excellent," says archaeologist Olaf Joris of the Romano-Germanic Central Museum in Mainz, Germany. The new research supports J6ris' own review of Neandertal dates, in which he concluded that the last of the Neandertals probably lived around 42,000 years ago. The standard view suggests that these hominids occupied Europe much longer, until about 28,000 years ago.

But other archaeologists are not convinced by the new work. "We shouldn't get too carried away over results that amount to a few radiocarbon dates from two sites," says Paul Pettitt, an archaeologist at Durham University in England.

Over the last couple of decades, archaeologists have determined that the Iberian Peninsula was one of the last Neandertal refuges. Neandertals throughout much of Europe appear to have gone extinct around the same time that modern humans reached the continent, at least 42,000 years ago. But the favorable climate of southern Spain and Gibraltar may have helped Neandertals hang on for another 10,000 years or so.

Getting a precise chronology is crucial to understanding what factors played a role in the Neandertals' demise and the degree to which Neandertals and humans interacted and possibly inter bred, researchers say.

Most of the youngest Neandertal ages come from radiocarbon dating. This method dates organic material by using the steady rate at which one form of carbon transforms into another after an organism dies.

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